It’s pretty wonderful to be able to offer a glowing appraisal of a new Australian drama as the first review for 2024.
Such is the towering achievement of Boy Swallows Universe, a new 8 part Netflix drama from Brouhaha Entertainment, Five Henrys, Chapter One, Hopscotch Features and Anonymous Content.
The coming of age tale, based on the best seller by Trent Dalton, is set in Brisbane, 1985 and from the opening scenes you are transported back to a working class, strine suburb where the kids ride bikes to the pool and Queenslander houses sit on stilts.
Eli Bell (Felix Cameron) is a 13 year old son of Frances (Phoebe Tonkin) and stepson to her boyfriend, Lyle (Travis Fimmel). While Lyle deals in smack, mum Frances has spent time drying out, but she loves her son even if she’s not especially adept at parenting.
Older brother Gus (Lee Tiger Halley) is a teen who hasn’t spoken in years and instead communicates by writing prophetically in the air. Phrases such as “Your end is a dead blue wren” are your introduction to the magic realism that ripples through this tale, all seen through the eyes of young Eli.
Eli is very nearly the smartest person in the room, save for Slim (Bryan Brown), a former convicted taxi driver killer (Eli is convinced he is innocent), who adopts a grandfatherly role with sage advice and the odd, carefree driving lesson.
Young Eli also has a pen pal at Boggo Road jail (Adam Briggs) who shares his view of the world through letters when he isn’t rioting over the loss of Days of Our Lives TV screenings.
“Stay out of it, don’t rat on your mates, keep your trap shut,” he advises.
Just getting through the day is an obstacle course for our hero, as all manner of shady, underworld types enter the home, or he is bullied at school by Darren (Zachary Wan), son of a Vietnamese crime queen (HaiHa Le).
All he really wants is enough money to take his mother away from this cycle. But Lyle is dealing, and Eli is worried about the future, some of which manifests in dream sequences involving the moon, a station wagon and the milky way…
Felix Cameron is an instant star with his dynamic, sometimes heartbreaking, performance as Eli. This is a performance shining way beyond his years, gifted with colloquial dialogue and profound lines such as, “I just got a whole lot of tears inside me. I can’t help it.”
Amongst a stellar ensemble are drawcard names including Anthony LaPaglia, Simon Baker, Deborah Mailman plus Rob Carlton, Kate Box, Ben O’Toole and Sophie Wilde.
The script by John Collee captures the era through Aussie vernacular, backyard and kitchen table quirks, old Datsun cars, thongs, bikies & skinheads, and songs by Skyhooks, Men at Work, Supertramp and Chain. It would be remiss not to mention some of the TV shows seen or referred to: Wheel of Fortune, Sale of the Century, Here’s Humphrey, Diff’rent Strokes.
Phoebe Tonkin glows as the desolate mum Frances and Lee Tiger Halley is quietly mesmerising as the silent Gus.
A parade of Brisbane characters will enter the screen under directors Bharat Nalluri, Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kim Mordaunt. It can feel a little overwhelming, but the surety of young Eli -and his relentless survival instinct- soon brings the world back into focus.
I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a coming of age tale of this kind since TV gems such as Puberty Blues and Cloudstreet. You will too.
Boy Swallows Universe screens Thursday on Netflix.